The second installment in one writer’s journey to document every Royal Rumble match in pro wrestling history.
Royal Rumble 1997
What Happened: For the first time since 1993, the winner and real star of this Rumble was a heel. Stone Cold Steve Austin was just reaching prominence at this point, becoming increasingly popular with the audiences despite his heel-ness. Austin didn’t need this win, and nothing really came of it, but it’s good that he got it.
What Worked: Any time Stone Cold had a chance to show some personality. This Rumble was great for the story it told with Austin.
What Didn’t Work: There were a ton of luchadors and Mexican wrestlers in this match, and not to take anything away from them but it seemed like the audience didn’t know who half of them were. It’s like the WWF had to pad their numbers just to have 30 guys for this match. Austin being thrown out by Bret, then jumping back in before the referees saw it was kind of dumb. So the referees don’t know how to use instant replay? I would’ve preferred if that hadn’t happened. Its never happened before in the history of the Rumble and having it happen here with the eventual winner just cheapens it. Also, the winner not going on to main event Wrestlemania cheapens it. Luckily this wouldn’t happen again for a while. Godwin throwing bad punch after bad punch after bad punch after bad punch while waiting for Austin to get to the ring. “Diesel” and “Razor Ramon” (as in, the fake imitations that the announcers treated like the real deals) were pretty bad ideas.
Best Moment: When Bret Hart’s music hit and we saw the, until-then, completely-fearless Stone Cold look up in horror.
Who Won: Stone Cold Steve Austin
Royal Rumble 1998
What Happened: This year, the Rumble was again the Stone Cold show. This time Stone Cold was a full-fledged good guy (well, “good guy”), with most of the roster gunning for him. The Attitude Era was officially underway, and the changes were evident from the red ropes to the general attitude on display.
What Worked: The crowd was rabid for this one, and rabid for Stone Cold. Mick Foley entering the Rumble several times under different personas was some pretty good comedy. During Stone Cold’s entrance, the Rumble match literally just stopped as a ring full of guys all turned and looked at the entranceway. A dose of Attitude injected into the proceedings makes everything better. Also, the Nation of Domination was pretty…dominant here. This Rumble was better than ’96 and ’97, but brought down by the lack of star power or true competition over who would emerge victorious.
What Didn’t Work: Stone Cold wasn’t in most of the match, as one of the last entrants. The talent pool seemed even shallower for this Rumble than it did in 96 and 97. Austin was the only person in there with any shot at winning, and the only real star (at this point in time) in the match.
“Best Moment:“ Jim Ross exclaiming that “Mark Henry is handling the big Johnson!” Naw, just kidding. The final moments, with Stone Cold and The Rock squaring off, are easily the highlight of the match. They trade shots as the audience absolutely goes wild, and if Vince McMahon wasn’t planning on having these two main event the next year’s Wrestlemania before, he was after that.
Who Won: “Stone Cold” Steve Austin
Royal Rumble 1999
What Happened: Like ’98, this was another Austin Show, with no one else having any real shot at winning going into the match. Unlike ’98, he didn’t win. This is the one Rumble that is quintessentially Attitude Era, with no hint of the previous era. Most of the focus fell on backstage goings-on and story-lines. The match itself got little attention for the first half, with Austin battling The Corporation backstage. Chyna became the first female to ever enter the Royal Rumble, and immediately shocked the crowd by eliminating Mark Henry. This match effectively served as nothing more than a vehicle in the Stone Cold Vs. Vince McMahon story, which absolutely eclipsed the match. McMahon’s offer of $100,000 to whoever could eliminate Austin was the backdrop of this match, and as a result of all of this, it’s one of the weaker Rumbles in match quality. It still manages to be entertaining, though.
What Worked: The audience. This was the most active crowd yet for a Rumble, and they popped constantly. The era of bad gimmicks was definitely over at this point, and the crowd cared about almost every wrestler.
What Didn’t Work: Vince McMahon winning was a pretty stupid choice. Focusing on the backstage during the first half of the match kinda belittled the participants and the concept.
Best Moment: Austin getting Vince McMahon alone as the final two, battering him from pillar to post as the crowd went wild.
Who Won: Vince McMahon
Royal Rumble 2000
What Happened: One of the best PPVs of all time also has one of the best Rumble matches. This event took place in Madison Square Garden. This is during the McMahon-Helmsley Era. You can tell that it followed the brutal HHH/Cactus Jack match because they continuously delay the start of the match to get thumbtacks out of the ring. The big story here is that the winner would get to challenge HHH for the World Title, and as usual there was one particular wrestler who was almost guaranteed to win: The Rock. However, like the previous year, fans got thrown a loop at the end. The match ended when Big Show and The Rock eliminated each other at the same time.
What Worked: The whole roster was more over with the audience here than 1999. Attitude was dying down a bit, so the focus is on the actual match and said roster. Rikishi and Too Cool were tremendously popular. Bob Backlund’s surprise appearance got a huge reaction from the crowd. Once The Rock joined the match, the crowd was on fire for the rest.
What Didn’t Work: Funaki thinking he was in the match, continually running in and being immediately eliminated, was more offensive than comedic. There was too much interference throughout, with Kaientai and the Mean Street Posse doing multiple run-ins. When people who aren’t in the match run in and eliminate people who are, it cheapens the concept a bit. Also, replaying Taka Michinoku falling on his face outside about ten times (while Jerry Lawler laughed hysterically) was pretty bad.
Best Moment: It’s difficult to pick just one, but Too Cool being the only three in the ring at one point and having a spontaneous dance party comes to mind.
Who Won: The Rock
Royal Rumble 2001
What Happened: Possibly the strongest roster (in terms of overness) in WWF history collided for what is arguably the best Royal Rumble of all time. This followed what may have been the best year in the company’s history as they made money hand-over-fist and built plenty of new stars. You can tell that the WWF is on top of its game here. Kurt Angle (the world champion) and Triple H were tied up in a match of their own, but the rest of the roster made this show work.
What Worked: The crowd was super into this match. This is the WWF at the height of its popularity. There were a bunch of guys who could conceivably win. The Rock, Stone Cold, Undertaker, Kane, and Rikishi (well, maybe) were all possibilities. The match played to the strengths of everyone in it, with Kane and Undertaker as the requisite ring-clearers and a sort of hardcore match in the early-going with Raven, Saturn, and Al Snow. There was also a mini-storyline with Drew Carey entering the Rumble and quickly realizing he needed to get the hell out of there.
What Didn’t Work: The audience was flashing their cameras so much that for half the match I thought I’d have a seizure.
Best Moment: Stone Cold and The Rock squaring off at the end of the match. They were evenly matched and the crowd went ballistic for this.
Who Won: Stone Cold Steve Austin
Royal Rumble 2002
What Happened: The big story here was HHH returning from injury right before the Rumble. The Monday Night War was over, the WWF had transitioned out of the Attitude Era, and the business was in a state of flux at this point. Many point to this period of time as the start of a big decline for the WWF.
What Worked: This Rumble had a lot of star-power. While HHH was the favorite, Stone Cold, The Undertaker, and Kurt Angle were also possibilities to win. There were several big returns like Goldust and Mr. Perfect. The latter actually made it to the final three of the match.
What Didn’t Work: The two minute intervals between entrants made this Rumble a bit slower-paced than the usual. RVD was quickly buried by HHH, and Booker T (#30) was buried even quicker by Austin. Considering the show was in Atlanta, the WWF did nothing at all to acknowledge WCW fans who were no doubt in attendance. Not allowing Booker T or DDP to put on a strong showing was a missed opportunity to pop the crowd.
Best Moment: Maven’s shocking elimination of The Undertaker, who was dominating up to that point. Unfortunately this did little good for Maven as Undertaker went back in and eliminated him, then spent the rest of the match throwing him through concession stands. But for a moment, the crowd went absolutely nuts as the underdog scored a win.
Who Won: Triple H
Royal Rumble 2003
What Happened: The first Royal Rumble under the WWE name. This was also the first Royal Rumble after the brand split, so there was a lot of interaction between wrestlers who hadn’t interacted to this point. Making his return to the Royal Rumble, after being absent since 1996, Shawn Michaels was the first entrant. Second was Chris Jericho, which started things off with a bang. John Cena, Batista, and Brock Lesnar made their Royal Rumble debut here. Note: It’s weird how much more over the Smackdown guys tend to be than the Raw guys. 2002 was a much better year for Smackdown than it was for Raw. Smackdown had a bunch of uber-talented upper mid-carders and main eventers vying for the spotlight, while Raw was the HHH show.
What Worked: The sheer talent on display in the ring for most of the match. You had mid-card (at the time) guys like Eddie Guerrero, Jeff Hardy, Rob Van Dam, Chris Jericho, and Edge putting on a total clinic for most of the match. Or at least as much of a clinic as one can put on in a Rumble match. John Cena’s battle rap during his entrance was pretty awesome. Booker T and Rob Van Dam actually got to last a while this time. Triple H, Stone Cold, and The Rock were all absent, so the field was wide open for a new star to emerge. Undertaker congratulating Brock Lesnar on his victory was a good moment and something never really seen before at the end of a Rumble match. It went a long way considering that “winning Undertaker’s respect” remains a big deal in the WWE storyverse.
What Didn’t Work: The crowd wasn’t really active in this match, especially compared to the previous few years. There wasn’t really any particular overarching storyline for this match and it lacked a lot of the intensity that previous installments had. Until the arrival of Brock Lesnar and Undertaker at the end it didn’t really seem like the crowd was invested in anyone, despite the quality of some of the competitors.
Best Moment: Maven drop-kicking The Undertaker and jumping around celebrating as if he’d eliminated him for the second straight Rumble. This time Undertaker wasn’t taken out, and Maven quickly realized his mistake when he turned around and got annihilated by the unfazed Deadman.
Who Won: Brock Lesnar
Royal Rumble 2004
What Happened: Chris Benoit made history by being the first guy to win as the #1 entrant since Shawn Michaels in 1995. This was a rare Rumble where the winner wasn’t obvious going in and actually came as a surprise to most people. This Rumble displayed the numbers of the entrants onscreen when they walked out, so things were a bit easier to keep track of.
What Worked: Benoit and Orton were #1 and #2 respectively and managed to last throughout the first half of the match – often finding themselves the only two in the ring. This was reminiscent of the 1995 Rumble where the same situation happened with Shawn Michaels and British Bulldog. Jim Ross and Taz were on commentary, which was a rare combination that worked well.
What Didn’t Work: Goldberg as the #30 entry was a pretty weird choice. Like him or not, Goldberg was a force of nature that would have been really interesting entering around #20 or so and dominating for a while. Having him join the match (his sole Rumble appearance ever) right before it ended seemed like a waste and only served to make him look bad since he didn’t win. In general, this Rumble was uneventful and kind of boring. While the previous Rumble was used to help make Brock Lesnar a superstar and the next one would make superstars out of John Cena and Batista, this one didn’t really have the same effect. It’s clear they were going for that Shawn Michaels type push with Benoit, but it just didn’t come across like a star-making performance because he was never the focal point of the match.
Best Moment: The final six hitting their big moves on Big Show in succession, then Kurt Angle leading them in trying to throw the giant out.
Who Won: Chris Benoit
Read the final installment in this series.
Photo credit: tbiley/Flickr